In the history of football movies, few of the films that dealt with the professional game are actually about NFL teams—most of the time, the players suit up for the Washington Federals (as in 2000's Gene Hackman/Keanu Reeves vehicle, The Replacements) or the Miami Sharks (Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday), rather than the Cleveland Browns and the Seattle Seahawks.
The list of films that the NFL actually lent its brand, logos, and team names to is short and sporadically illustrious: 2006's Invincible, a brief part of the 2005 Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, Jerry Maguire, Little Giants, Heaven Can Wait, Brian's Song, and, er, Flash Gordon may be the full list—until Ivan Reitman's Draft Day takes the field April 11.
Draft Day is a unique film for a few reasons. Most of the football movies that have borrowed the NFL's properties have either told stories from decades ago, did so in a very limited capacity, or told a story that was only tangentially about the game itself. Not so with Draft Day, which is set in the present day, in the front office of the Cleveland Browns franchise, with the relationship between teams and the inner-workings of an NFL organization the entire point of the movie.
One might assume that for Reitman—the legendary director of films including Animal House, Stripes, and Ghostbusters—developing a film with the NFL looking over his shoulder would have been a unique challenge.
"It was pretty fabulous," Reitman gushes. "The good news for us is that they loved the script, and the knew me and sort of liked the movies I'd made in the past." That doesn't mean, though, that the league gave Reitman carte-blanche to develop the film.
"We had to submit our script to them for approval, and they vetted everything," he explains. "It was a very organized, well-run, fair kind of relationship, and they didn't really ask us to change very much."
Kevin Costner, who stars in the film as (fictional) Browns GM Sonny Weaver, Jr, made headlines among league observers in early April when he explained that the NFL asked the filmmakers to remove a scene in which fans hung an effigy of his character, but Reitman says that the bulk of the league's concerns dealt with more grounded concerns: Namely, making sure that the NFL's promotional partners were also included.
"Their major concern was the promotional partner cars—whatever sort of car our hero was driving, it should be a promotional partner vehicle, as opposed to something else," Reitman says. "They had no problem with other cars [being in the film], but in terms of the main performers, things like that. There was a lot of phone usage in our film, so things like the phone and the car, they had some concern over, which made sense to me."
Making that sort of minor concession, Reitman explains, was well worth it—a movie like Draft Day, which is about the dramatic minutiae of the NFL front-office process, really only works if it's dealing with the actual NFL. The opportunity to tell this story that way wasn't just a chance to make a better film—it was the only way he was even interested in taking on the project.
"It was a remarkable opportunity, and frankly, this movie wouldn't have been made without it," he says. "There was no way to tell the story with a made-up group of teams and league. It just wasn't going to happen—I wasn't interested in it as a filmmaker, and the studio wouldn't have made it."
The league is happy with Reitman's creative product ("Commissioner Goodell saw it himself—they just went nuts for it," he says), and Reitman suspects that the film might enjoy a bump as a result of NFL fans who may not be regular filmgoers heading to theaters. The NFL, for its part, is determined to grow what is already America's primary sports entertainment in new ways, and a film that dramatizes what is the most exciting non-gameday event in American sports in the NFL Draft can't hurt, in that regard.
In some ways, Draft Day is a suspense film, as Costner's character finds himself digging himself out of a hole that external pressures placed him in early on in the picture, as he's forced to trade away future draft picks for the right to select a quarterback he's not convinced is the face of his franchise. Plot details like that also had an impact on the way the real-world NFL properties got involved in the film.
Specifically, Reitman explains that, while the NFL as an organization approved of the project, the film itself still had to get permission from the respective teams to include them. While the Cleveland Browns organization was happy to be a part of the project (the state of Ohio offered tax incentives that beat out a possible contender for the lead team in the Buffalo Bills), there are five other teams who appear in the film in various capacities—as trade partners, as scouting rivals, and more—and one that did not.
"There was one team that literally fell out four days before [shooting]," Reitman says. "There were concerns, because the team was under a lot of criticism—it was the New York Jets. They were very interested, but they were nervous about their fans." The Jets, who've kept their fans on a quarterback rollercoaster ride of uncertainty that went from Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith to recent-signee Michael Vick, opted not to create any more drama, fictional or otherwise. "The fictional story that takes place in Draft Day, along with what was really going on with their choice of quarterbacks over the last year, made them decide that it would be better for them to stay out of the film, than to solicit even more criticism—there's so much conversation about that first pick, the quarterback, and whether he was going to work or not in Draft Day."
Ultimately, the Jets—who would have been the team with the first overall draft pick—were replaced by the Seattle Seahawks, a change that Reitman found amusing, given that the team, in reality, won the Super Bowl and earned itself the last pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, rather than the first one.
"They were the first to say, 'We're in. We love this,'" he recalls. "They weren't expected necessarily to win the Super Bowl last year—but I picked them, and I kept them. That was just one of those wonderful things that happens."